Absurdistan | Gary Shteyngart
The story of Misha Borisovich Vainberg—30 years old, weighing 325 pounds (almost 150kg) and son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia—breathes laboriously through the 332 pages of this novel. Its racy plot and blistering prose turn what you’d consider a rich, spoilt, self-defeating Russian into a modern-day hero.
Right at the start, author Gary Shteyngart (this follows his acclaimed first autobiographical novel, The Russian Debutant’s Diary) explains why Misha should exist:
“I am a puppy deposited in a den of wolves (only the soft blue glint of my eyes keeps me from being torn to shreds)...In the next 318 pages, you may occasionally see me boxing the ears of my manservant or drinking one Laphroaig too many. But you will also see me attempt to save an entire race from genocide...you will watch me make love to fallen women with the childlike passion of the pure.”
We meet Misha, a vodka-drinking, pill-popping New Yorker, a graduate in Multicultural Studies from Accidental College. He lives in a loft that looks out to the World Trade Center (the year is early 2001). When he is not discussing world politics or Jewishness with his wannabe-intellectual colleagues over endless puffs of marijuana, he frequents a “titty bar”. There he meets Rouenna, a trash-talking girl from the Bronx, who becomes his girlfriend. His father, a nouveau riche Russian businessman, dies after being involved in the killing of an American in St Petersburg, and Misha has to go home. His visa is denied and Rouenna drifts away. In the second half, he is in Absurdistan, an oil-blessed former Soviet republic by the Caspian sea, where he hopes to sort out his visa problem. While he’s there, Absurdistan’s political clock turns. Democratic forces strike back at this land ruled by the Svanis and Sevos. This could be any small, strife-torn, oil-rich nation of the world that worships and hates America at the same time. Misha’s land of redemption is, of course, New York, and on 10 September 2001, he is perilously close to his goal.
There are many stereotypes here, especially racial. Through Misha, Shteyngart jokes about Jews, Muslims, Brooklynites, Americans. But he rises above these biases with his humanely funny take on people whose identities are ultimately based on crude distinctions. While making fun of the characters, he makes fun of the world. On hearing a Sevo song about love and sex, Misha ponders: “All this talk about forced anal sex worried me. This was not how you gained market share on MSNBC, or even on FOX and certainly not how you won the love of the world.”
We laugh at and with Misha, even as we nurse our tears for him. Good fiction does that.